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5 Costly List Building Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

  • Conversion Rate Optimization
  • List Building

Write compelling email copy, include an enticing call-to-action (CTA), send your email, and watch your sales go through the roof. I think we can all agree that email marketing is the top dog when it comes to increasing revenue and building lifetime customer relationships.

But what are great emails worth if you don’t have anyone to send them to?

Your email list should be one of your most prized possessions, as it’s the foundation for all your email marketing.

There are many ways to grow your email list, and you might even be using some of them already.

But even with all these tips and tricks on list building, we still make mistakes and don’t see the results we were expecting.

These mistakes, large or small, can have a huge impact on the outcome of your email marketing efforts such as an increase in email subscribe rates, and reduced revenue.

This post includes the top 5 list building mistakes, and how to avoid them (we’ve been guilty of making some of them ourselves).

We all make mistakes, but the important thing is to not give up, and figure out how to do better.

Thus, we hope listing the most common list building mistakes will help you take your list building efforts to the next level.

Grab your coffee and let’s get started.

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Get Access to Our Private Vault of Marketing Resources

Like many fast-growing startups, we’ve made our share of marketing mistakes in recent years...

But we’ve also learned which strategies work ... and which you should avoid at ALL costs.

To make life easier, we’ve put together a curated resource stack of tried-and-trusted marketing tactics we’re using to grow Sleeknote.

Here's a preview of what’s inside:

  • The 41 Best E-Commerce Emails We've Ever Seen (2018 Update)
  • 100+ Growth Marketing Ideas You Need to Steal (Ranked for Your Convenience)
  • Casper's $750+ Million Marketing Toolkit (Our Favorite)
  • Our Content Relaunch Framework (The Same Framework We Used to Increase Our Organic Traffic by 290.67% in 3 Weeks)
  • Our Marketing Department-in-a-Drive (Our Most Important Checklists and Processes)

Plus 17+ other resources (and counting).

1. Not Defining Specific Goals

One of the first mistakes we realized we made, was we didn’t set specific goals for our list building strategy.

It sounds so easy to do (and it is if you know how to do it), so why didn’t we?

We simply didn’t think we needed it.

Many marketers set vague goals that have no clear definition such as:

  • Get more subscribers
  • Increase revenue
  • Become an expert

These goals are not measurable, and thus, you will never know when you’ve reached your goal.

One of my favorite things about goal setting is the feeling you get when you reach your goal.

It motivates you to keep going and set new and more ambitious goals, which in turn keeps your business going as well.

If you have unclear and undefined goals, you’ll never know if your efforts are truly worth it.

Specificity is key, here.

Start out by setting a yearly goal for your department or yourself, and then, based on that goal, set smaller monthly and daily goals that will help you reach your target.

Have you ever heard of SMART goals?

A SMART goal should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time Bound

A yearly goal for a marketing department fulfilling these criteria could be: Increase the number of email leads by 50% by January 1st, 2018.

Then, you can move on to set monthly goals that will help you reach your yearly goal. How many leads would you need to generate a month to increase your current number of leads by 50%?

Let’s say that’s 500 new leads a month. Then that’s your monthly goal.

You can even divide the number further and set daily and weekly goals.

However, that would also require you spending time each day or week to revise your methods for reaching this goal (I’ll tell you more about how to do that later in the post).

Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. Ambition is a great motivator and if you reach your goal within your deadline, you’ll be even more motivated to pursue your next goal.

However, there is a catch.

If your goal is too ambitious (or even impossible), you’ll only set yourself up for failure.

Thus, you need to be realistic and know your limitations at the moment you set your goals.

It’s also important not to give up if you don’t achieve your desired outcome.

If you didn’t hit your target there’s a reason. Find out what that reason is and try a new strategy for your next goal.

This is where a good plan or system comes into play.

Performance improvement writer, James Clear, sums it up nicely using a boating analogy:

If the rudder is your goal, then the oars are your process for achieving it. While the rudder determines your direction, it is the oars that determine your progress.

The oars on the boat are just as (if not more) important than the goal itself.

If your goal is to increase your number of email leads by 20% before May 1st, you need to think about how you will do that.

If your goal is ambitious (and it should be), then it won’t be enough to just continue with what you’re already doing (if you’re doing anything, that is).

Your plan should include the exact tools and methods you want to use to increase your number of leads.

We’ve recently set a new goal for our content team here at Sleeknote:

Our plan included researching which strategy we would use (content upgrades) and who that strategy would be best suited for (market research)

This brings us to the next mistake we made…

2. Not Knowing Your Audience and What They Want

When we first started creating content upgrades or other lead magnets for that matter, we had no idea what our audience really wanted.

We couldn’t understand why our conversions weren’t converting as well as we’d initially predicted.

Here were our initial conversion rates:

The reason our conversions were so low was we hadn’t researched our audience and found out why they were visiting our blog, and what we could offer to encourage them to sign up for our newsletter.

Once we began researching our audience, and their interests, we were able to create lead magnets that would solve a problem or a need for our readers.

This boosted our conversions three-fold, and it didn’t cost us anything other than an hour extra a week for one employee.

Despite popular belief, doing user research doesn’t need to be complicated or costly.

Sometimes, all you need to do is ask.

Doing a survey on your website where you ask your visitors what their interests are, what problems they’re  facing, why they decided to visit your website, and so on, will give you great insight into your audience’s needs and interest.

Once, you’ve done your user research, you need to develop a buyer persona based on this research.

Creating a persona based on your audience is the key to creating great and valuable content that will convert your visitors into email leads (and increasing revenue for that matter).

Whenever you create content, write emails or product descriptions, create lead magnets, and so on, this persona is who you need to address.

It might seem silly, but it’s a good idea to have a physical item representing your persona. Doing so will help you remember who you’re targeting, whether you’re attending a meeting, writing copy, or more.

For example, at HubSpot, they’ll bring a teddy bear to a meeting and say, ‘this is Jane, she’s 35 years old, has three kids, loves her minivan, and has no time to shop for food.’

This helps you visualize your audience and you’ll naturally keep them in mind when developing new campaigns and other marketing strategies.

(To learn more about how to use personas in your business, read our interview with Zeph Snapp.)

Once you have defined your persona, you can begin creating content that provides real value to your audience.

Value is the keyword here. Your visitors won’t convert into email leads unless you’re offering something in return.

If you run an e-commerce store with fitness gear, you might have found that many of your visitors want to lose weight.

If that’s the case, a free training program or a meal plan could serve as effective lead magnets.

Simple Green Smoothies has got this down pat:

They know their visitors are interested in clean eating and healthy living, which makes their 30-day smoothie challenge a perfect incentive for capturing leads.

The best lead magnets are those that solve a problem for your audience or help them achieve their goals.

3. Not Using Lead Capture Forms

This next item on my list is not a mistake we’ve made, but rather one we’ve seen many e-commerce websites (even our customers ) make.

It’s the use of lead capture forms (or rather, lack thereof).

With Google’s new interstitials update, many e-commerce websites have stopped using optins on their mobile sites because they are afraid Google will punish them with a lower ranking.

Now, Google only punishes mobiles sites with intrusive interstitials meaning as long as you comply with the rules there’s no need to worry.

You can read much more about the new rules and how to adapt your mobile optins for mobile sites in our blog post: 4 Proven Ways to Turn Mobile Users Into Subscribers.

Here are some of our best practices when it comes to mobile optins:

  • Only use a single image.
  • No more than two input fields (name and email).
  • The teaser on your mobile optin is even more important than on desktop because it’s the only way people will see your optin on mobile.
  • Your copy must be concise and convincing.

Here’s an example of how you can implement these best practices without having to create two very different versions of your optins.

The one on the left is for desktop and has more text and images than the mobile version on the right.

These are some of the things you need to consider when customizing your mobile optins.

The fact is, you have much more to lose if you don’t use optins than if you do.

Optins are the most effective way to generate leads directly from your website whether that on your product pages or blog posts.

Remember: 98% of your visitors leave your site without converting into leads or customers. That’s 98% of potential customers out the window.

If all your customers are offered a chance to sign up, you’ll undoubtedly lower that percentage.

However, you can’t just add an optin to your site and expect your conversion rates to go through the roof.

One of the things we always tell our customers, is your optins need to be unique.

I see too many generic and pre-fabricated optins everywhere, and it hurts my creative bone.

They look like they don’t belong on the website they’re presented on, which makes visitors close it down without even reading what the offer is.

My point: Be creative!

Creativity doesn’t have to be time-consuming or difficult.

You’ve already done your user research, so you have an idea of what your visitors like and dislike.

(And if you don’t, you know what to do, right? Ask them!)

Give your visitors an incentive based on which page they’re on. If they’re on your tennis racket product page, offer them a video guide on how to string a tennis racket.

The more specific your optins are, the more leads you’ll get.

Here are some of our other learnings with optins:

  • Always use images. Customers who use images with their optins convert more visitors than those who don’t.
  • Use as few input fields as possible. Our experience tells us that every time you add an input field, your conversion rate decreases by 50%. Always ask yourself: Do I really need this information? Typically the answer will be no. All you need is an email address.
  • Split test your forms. Even little things like text color, or image size, can have a huge impact on your conversion rates.

(To learn more about best practices on lead capture forms, read How to Grow an Email List from Scratch (An A to Z Guide).)

4. Failing to Follow Up

What do you do once people have signed up for your newsletter?

Do you just hope that your newsletter is so good that they’ll automatically become repeat customers?

Of course not!

When we first started generating leads at Sleeknote, our leads would automatically get transferred to our blog segment in MailChimp, and our readers would receive our weekly newsletter.

What we failed to do, here, relates to the first mistake in this post—setting a goal.

What did we want to achieve by getting people on our email list?

We know they subscribed to get value—so what value should we offer them and how could it be mutually beneficial for them and us?

A newsletter is a good way of generating traffic to your website, but what is that traffic worth if you don’t convert any of it?

Your newsletter subscribers are already subscribed to your newsletter, so neither they or you would get any additional value from making them subscribe again.

But wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that they could benefit from your product?

Again, user research is crucial.

If you know your audience, you know what their pain points are and you can help them solve their problems and feed their interests.

Even though it sounds so harsh, isn’t the purpose of email marketing to get more customers and increase revenue?

It sure is. That’s why email marketing is so important. It has the potential to do just that.

That’s when we developed an email drip flow with the purpose of converting our blog subscribers into free trial users.

This is what our first flow looked like:

The key is to keep providing value, but add some CTAs in between and show your visitors the value of your product and how it can help them.

Here is one of the emails in our drip flow:


This email is our top performing email in our drip flow, and we don’t mention our product at all.

So how do we convert subscribers into customers?

The people who visit the blog post on content upgrades through the link in the email is presented with an optin specific to this visitor segment.

The optin redirects people to a landing page where they can sign up for a free trial and try creating optins for content upgrades just like we encourage in the blog post.

The content of the blog post also helps this goal, as we’ve sprinkled little breadcrumbs throughout the post referring to our product indiscreetly.

The ones who sign up for a free trial then enter a new drip flow where we try to convert them into customers.

Once we found out how effective our email drip flow was, we got working on more flows all with the purpose of helping, retaining and building a stronger relationship with our customers.

We now have 10 different drip flows (including our initial blog drip flow in MailChimp) with one overall purpose: Acquiring and retaining customers.

This takes a lot of time researching and setting up, but it’s time well spent.

The takeaways:


  • Don’t forget about your subscribers once they’ve signed up.
  • Create email drip flows based on your user research.
  • Give them plenty of value, but don’t forget to get something in return once in a while.
  • Focus on solving a problem rather than product features.

There’s no single solution when it comes to email marketing, but learning from the mistakes you’ve made and hearing the mistakes others have made, might help guide you in the right direction.

And remember: Test. Test Test. You’ll never get it right the first time. (we’re still learning every day, and improving where we can).

5. The Worst Mistake of All

Not getting started.

It sounds silly, but the hardest thing is getting started and making the decision to actually do something to grow your business.

You might not think you have the time or the resources to start implementing optins or doing user research, but your efforts will pay off tenfold in little time, and you’ll be glad you made that small investment.

It’s the future of your business so it’s definitely worth it.

We were in business for three years before we started doing email drip flows, and the biggest lesson learned in this regard was that we should have started much sooner.

As Derek Halpern so wisely said: if you’re not building an email list, you are an idiot!

With that said, there’s just one thing left to do—get started!

Free Downloadable Bonus

Get Access to Our Private Vault of Marketing Resources

Like many fast-growing startups, we’ve made our share of marketing mistakes in recent years...

But we’ve also learned which strategies work ... and which you should avoid at ALL costs.

To make life easier, we’ve put together a curated resource stack of tried-and-trusted marketing tactics we’re using to grow Sleeknote.

Here's a preview of what’s inside:

  • The 41 Best E-Commerce Emails We've Ever Seen (2018 Update)
  • 100+ Growth Marketing Ideas You Need to Steal (Ranked for Your Convenience)
  • Casper's $750+ Million Marketing Toolkit (Our Favorite)
  • Our Content Relaunch Framework (The Same Framework We Used to Increase Our Organic Traffic by 290.67% in 3 Weeks)
  • Our Marketing Department-in-a-Drive (Our Most Important Checklists and Processes)

Plus 17+ other resources (and counting).

Wrap up

We all make mistakes and there’s no shame in that. The important thing is that you get back up, and figure out what went wrong and try something else.

As my wise colleague, Emil, always says: We try 100 things and hopefully one of those things will work.

I hope you’ve learned a thing or two from this post, and hopefully, you won’t make the same mistakes we (and many others) have—and if you do, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Keep moving forward.

Have you made any of these mistakes? Leave a comment below.

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